Essential Questions in Teaching American History

by John McNamara

A carefully crafted lesson has a well-defined focus and framework as well as a clearly stated purpose. The lesson should present students with an issue that is phrased as a problem to be solved or a thought-provoking question to be analyzed. By answering these questions, students can learn to think critically and develop positions and viewpoints. In the modules below, we have grouped some essential questions by topic and added links to primary sources, images, videos, and lesson plans on the Gilder Lehrman website to supplement the questions and topics.




The American Revolution, 1763-1783


To what extent was the American Revolution a revolt against taxes?





To what extent did the Declaration of Independence establish the foundation of the American government?




The New Nation, 1783-1815


To what extent did the Articles of Confederation provide the United States with an effective government?





Could the Constitution be written without compromise?





How did political parties take shape?





How were Jefferson’ and Hamilton’s ideas different?





Did the Supreme Court under John Marshall give too much power to the federal government (at the expense of the states)?




National Expansion & Reform, 1815-1860


Was the Monroe Doctrine a policy of expansion or self defense?





Have reformers had significant impact on American society?





Was the Age of Jackson an age of democracy?





How did the United States deal with the issue of Indian tribal sovereignty?





To what extent were the railroads the engine for economic growth and national unity in the nineteenth century?




Civil War & Reconstruction, 1861-1877


Was slavery the primary cause of The Civil War?





Does Abraham Lincoln deserve to be called “The Great Emancipator”?





What problems did Reconstruction governments face after the Civil War?




Rise of Industrial America, 1877-1900


How did Jim Crow laws create and govern a racially segregated society in the South?





Why was the US a magnet for immigrants?





To what extent has the American West been romanticized?





What arguments were used to justify US involvement in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific?




Progressive Era to New Era, 1900-1929


To what extent was Theodore Roosevelt a “Progressive” president?





What were the arguments for and against US entry into World War I?





What were the effects of the Treaty of Versailles?





What led to “The Great Migration”?





How did the role of women change in the 1920s?




Great Depression & WWII, 1929-1945


What were the causes and the outcomes of the Great Depression?





What role did the US play in World War II?





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